FOUR senior United States senators are calling for a comprehensive strategy to counter China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, characterising Beijing's activities in the waterway as a "direct challenge" to the world.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, the lawmakers singled out the extensive construction and land reclamation by the Chinese on contested islands.
They noted that while several other nations were also conducting building works on the islands, only the Chinese have sought to change the "size, structure and physical attributes of land features themselves".
For instance, they said, Gaven Reef has had 114,000 sq m of new land since last year, while Johnson Reef has been transformed from a submerged outcrop to a 100,000 sq m island.
"This is a qualitative change that appears designed to alter the status quo in the South China Sea," said the letter signed by Senators John McCain, Bob Corker, Jack Reed and Bob Menendez.
The senators said that, left unchecked, Chinese activities could be a "direct challenge not only to the interests of the United States and the region, but to the entire international community".
China is at odds with several countries, in particular US ally the Philippines and Vietnam, over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier this week, the commander of the US Navy Seventh Fleet even suggested that Asean form a joint maritime force to patrol the sea.
At a regular media briefing yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei repeated Beijing's insistence that the islands are part of Chinese territory. Therefore, he said, the building works are "lawful and justified".
He also dismissed the Asean joint patrol suggestion, saying the South China Sea disputes should be dealt with by claimant states through negotiations.
In the Philippines, a defence analyst told The Straits Times that it may be too late for any "formal US strategy" to stop or slow China's land reclamation in the South China Sea.
"The option of slowing or stopping these reclamation activities depends solely now on China," said Mr Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Centre for Intelligence and National Security Studies.
Additional reporting by Raul Dancel in Manila